Decorating the Christmas Tree has always been a very important tradition in my family. It’s the turning point in the holiday where the magic begins. Because my birthday is the 18th, my family worked very hard to make a separation between birthday and Christmas, and the decorating of the tree on the evening of my birthday as a child was “a very big deal”. I think this made it even more magical for me, and to this day, the Christmas Tree is the mark of the true beginning of the holidays.
Trees have always had a special meaning in history, and for long before Christianity came to be and then engulfed the world as the main ‘modern’ religion, the trees that maintained their greenery throughout the winter months have been held special to people and cultures across the planet.
So, when did Christmas Trees become part of modern culture?
My favorite bit of history is that the modern popularity of the Christmas Tree dates back only to Queen Victoria. Bringing it to England from the traditions of her German family, Queen Victoria was the trendsetter for Christmas Trees. Her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, also of Germany, was the first in the Royal family to put up a tree, but it was not widely known at the time. When Queen Victoria was a child, she often had a small tree in her private rooms.
Three years after her coronation when she married Prince Albert, with her encouragement, brought with him the traditions of his childhood, including Christmas Trees. It wasn’t until 1848 when the portrait below was published in the London Illustrated News, that Christmas trees were embraced by the greater population.
But where did this tradition come from?
The celebration surrounding a tree, particularly an evergreen, is a much older tradition, however, and one that transcends cultures and religions. Many ancient civilizations used garland, boughs and branches of evergreens or palm leaves (Egypt) as a sign of eternal life and would use these tokens to celebrate the Winter Solstice.
Pre-Christianity the pagan practice of bringing in Trees or boughs of evergreen is even documents by the Prophet Jeremiah, during a time when a ‘heathen’ was often condemned in the middle east for cutting down trees or adorning their homes with boughs of greenery.
Most of the best known traditions seem to have come out of Germany and the northern lands, possibly as far back as the Norse folk traditions and beliefs. In medieval Germany, there was a tradition of a wooden pyramid set up near the solstice and decorated with boughs from evergreens.
It is commonly thought that the tradition of decorating a fir tree around Christmas can be traced to 16th Century Riga, Latvia and from there most likely traveled north to Germany from the Baltic Sea area. By the late 17th Century, the German Protestant Elite decorated their homes with fir trees and limbs and boughs of them. They would decorate these with nuts and candied fruit.
Christmas Trees in the New World
From there, German immigrants who traveled to America in the early 1800s brought the tradition with them. It is most likely the Pennsylvania Dutch who put up the first Christmas Tree in America. As the country was being settled, the Puritans tried to eliminate the traditions of the Christmas tree. Calvinist Governor William Bradford, the Pilgrims second governor tried unsuccessfully to eradicated the tradition.
In 1851 Ohio, it is said to have been Pastor Henry Schwan was the first to actually decorated a Christmas Tree in a church in America.
Today, the practice is pretty standard among those of many faiths, and is not always a symbol of Christianity. Pagans have taken the Christmas tree back, calling it a Yule Tree, and have begun to celebrate with it as their ancestors did. Some towns in America have passed laws where no city property can place a Christmas Tree in an attempt to removed religious iconography from government buildings.
In truth, with households that hold multiple cultures and belief systems, the mythology of the Christmas Tree often has a secular feel about it, where family and friends can gather around it to celebrate love, life, joy and a strong wish for peace.
Consistent in the mythology is the celebration of the rebirth of the sun/new year/longest night and shortest day by bringing in to the house greenery. And while there are so many other myths and legends about the Christmas Tree, for me, the smell of pine, and sparking lights, and history in the decorations that we adorn our tree with, is what really makes the holiday season special for us.
So, whatever reasons drive you to put your tree up each year, whether it be faith, hope, friendship, or family, we here at The Researcher’s Gateway hope that your traditions thrive and bring you joy and peace as the year closes and those lights on the tree shine.
The Researcher’s Gateway
Other Holiday Traditions
- Christmas Stockings, A Brief History
- St. Lucia’s Day
- Christmas Tinsel: The Legend of the Christmas Spider